STRATCOM Twitter Is Bombing

Can a hashtag drum up public support for nukes?

Since mid-March, the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) Twitter account has been observing #MythMondays, the kind of low-effort public-relations push that you might expect from an organization that’s used to lawmakers regarding it as essential, its existence non-negotiable. The campaign has drawn limited public attention — about half the posts in the series have earned likes in the low triple-digits — and been a reliable source of laughs for the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament world. But its larger purpose remains unclear.

The more I engage with the infographics and videos as a potential source of information, the less I understand. Everything about the campaign, from its tiniest formal detail, suggests an incredible cynicism — most of all, its use of the “mythbuster” format without bothering to construct a compelling argument to go with it, to the point that a post about misleading portrayals of nuclear weapons in movies contains not a single reference to any actual film.

The object of that cynicism seems to be, first of all, social media itself — its prioritization of gesture over argumentation, its reputation for disallowing nuance and amplifying outrage. But a closer look reveals an even more penetrating cynicism, one which pays lip service to individual perspectives but views social media as the ultimate blunt instrument.

A mid-July poll showed that just about half of those polled favored a 10% cut to defense spending in favor of domestic priorities.

This becomes clear when you realize how difficult it is to actually read the posts. The infographics are relatively well-designed at first glance — in stark contrast to the graphic design ethos of documents from within the Department of Defense that are meant to be read by a few people with a special interest in the topic, like the Nuclear Posture Review. Slogans are presented ready-to-use, alliterative and in bold (“Impose Cost” “Credibly Convey Capabilities”), and hashtags are plentiful (it remains the only account posting under #21stCenturyStrategicDeterrence). But there’s often little or no connection between these detachable bits of content and the text in which they’re embedded. The graphics are often awkwardly long, and a Twitter user using a standard laptop screen (me, for example) has to download the image and zoom in to really get a good look at it. Even then, the text itself remains mostly impenetrable, a mix of vaguely-worded assertions, perplexing word choice, and a fast-and-loose approach to punctuation. (Why the ellipsis at the end of the oft-repeated “Peace Is Our Profession…?” Should I know what comes next?) These are not posts that are meant to be read closely, despite the sheer amount of text.

The timing of the campaign may be more revealing than its content. The first post was a video from March 16, as the lockdowns were beginning to seem like a serious, long-term feature of American life — perhaps in anticipation of an uptick in the use of social media with more office workers at home and rising unemployment. It was brought back as a regular feature in mid-June, when widespread protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd combined with housing, healthcare and unemployment crises had created what someone trained to think in the idiom of national security might call “instability.”

That, combined with an increasingly vocal progressive effort to set more serious limits on US  defense spending, could make the adoption of some kind of social media engagement strategy make a certain kind of sense. A mid-July poll showed that just about half of those polled favored a 10% cut to defense spending in favor of domestic priorities. Though bipartisan Congressional support for a truly massive nuclear weapons budget remains strong through the NDAA negotiation process, strong showings by progressive and left candidates in down-ballot races suggest that that might not always be the case.

The core weirdness of the STRATCOM social media presence lies, I think, in its overly credulous adoption of the idea, much more common among its political opponents, of “awareness” as a guiding political strategy. People whose views on nuclear weapons are all over the map have long operated on the assumption that public awareness is key, though the reasoning and the ultimate goal of that awareness varies. Disarmament and “risk reduction” advocates tend to take a “sunlight is the best disinfectant” approach, while a more moderate position identifies insufficient or incorrect public knowledge as the primary obstacle to better nuclear policy.

STRATCOM’s awkward embrace of the “awareness” model in an attempt to rally enthusiastic popular support around its mission — until nuclear weapons no longer exist, of course — makes obvious the emptiness of awareness as a goal in itself, when not backed up by a concrete vision of what better state of affairs that awareness might bring about. There are plenty of people on the Internet, experts and amateurs alike, who are more than willing to go to bat for US nuclear weapons. But it’s worth noting that the STRATCOM Twitter presence seems as uninterested in engaging its uncritical supporters as it is its implacable detractors. It doesn’t see public education in service of a particular worldview as its core task; passive support is all it requires. In amping up its Twitter presence, STRATCOM has revealed the fragility of that support, the limits of awareness as an end in itself — and the potential of active, organized opposition to aspects of US foreign and defense policy that were once taken for granted.

Emma Claire Foley is a Program Associate at Global Zero.